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Democrats Unveil Police Reform Plans


Congressional Democrats have unveiled a comprehensive attempt at remaking policing in America.


NANCY PELOSI: We cannot settle for anything less than transformative, structural change.

KELLY: That is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi there introducing the legislation. It is known as the Justice in Policing Act. And it would require a number of things, require police departments around the country to undergo training to combat racial bias and profiling, would ban the use of chokeholds, would also limit the transfer of military-grade weapons to local law enforcement and make it easier for individuals to sue the police. Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says the protests following the killing of George Floyd have been a tipping point.


KAREN BASS: The world is witnessing the birth of a new movement in our country.

KELLY: Well, NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is tracking this. She joins me now.

Hi, Kelsey.


KELLY: So I mentioned some of the big headline items. What else is in this bill?

SNELL: Yeah, some of those big items like banning chokeholds and making it harder for local police departments to use weapons of war are kind of the things that are making the headlines. But I think it's really important to take a look at some of those other details. Like, there is an element here bringing back something that was used a lot under the Obama administration to give the Justice Department more power to enforce investigations and go after local police departments. It was used to great effect by the Obama administration. And now the House Democrats want to bring that back. And they want to give the Justice Department subpoena power to make that even more powerful. They're also talking about making federal funding contingent on meeting training and enforcement criteria, meaning that if the local police department doesn't follow the rules and regulations set up by this bill, they would be at risk of receiving little or no federal funding to support their departments.

KELLY: It does feel, Kelsey, worth just pausing and emphasizing that Congress typically has said policing is a local issue. We're not going to get involved. And yet they are wading in now.

SNELL: Yeah. Congressional Democrats really do seem to have shifted on this. I will say that Democrats in the past have made attempts at doing policing bills. But they say that this moment is just different. Take Emanuel Cleaver. He was the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., before being elected to Congress. And he said having federal laws and standards could actually make it easier for local leaders who want to enforce standards but don't know how.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: Local communities all around the country who might be reticent about doing things that they believe would be helpful can say, you know, hey, that's the law.

SNELL: So national standards using federal funding for federal investigations to enforce them, those are ways that they say to fundamentally change policing in communities.

KELLY: What about the demand that we're hearing from some protesters to defund the police? This bill doesn't touch that. Why not?

SNELL: Well, Karen Bass, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus who we heard from earlier, did say that there is no new money for police in this bill. There's money to give communities a chance to rethink policing. But mostly, Democrats didn't address the question of defunding. It's becoming a political cudgel, nonetheless. Republicans in their campaigns are already out tying every Democrat running for office to the idea of defunding. I asked Ayanna Pressley who's one of the more progressive House freshmen about this, and she called the Republican tactics predictable and hurtful.

AYANNA PRESSLEY: There have been efforts to try to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement and to co-opt the narrative of what is actually happening throughout our globe in this moment. That commentary is certainly not surprising.

SNELL: It's not surprising, but it's a question they're going to be - end up answering constantly between now and the election. And it's something that reporters will ask once Democrats return to Washington.

KELLY: We just have a moment left, Kelsey. But what are the chances that Republicans will embrace this bill?

SNELL: Well, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says he's open to finding common ground. And Democrats I talked to say they think that the pressure of the protest movement and the clear shift in public sentiment will help their cause. You know, they also say that this bill is not the end of the process. And there could be room for more legislation down the line that could be more bipartisan.

KELLY: All right. Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.